When Virginia Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall and Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo meet on the field on December 28 at the 2017 Military Bowl, it will be a meeting of two men who are not only familiar with each other’s work, but who hold the highest level of admiration and respect for each other.
It was evident in their voices — it was more than just coachspeak, it was genuine admiration.
“Bronco’s a really good football coach,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s won a ton of football games. What he’s done at Virginia is not at all surprising, the turnaround that he’s had there. He’s a phenomenal football coach, but he’s an even better person.”
“We have great respect for their school, their program, their players and their coaching staff. This’ll be fun. We know this will be a great challenge for our team – they’re a really good team, but I know our kids will be really looking forward to it.”
Mendenhall returned the compliments and admiration, saying that he couldn’t think of a more worthy and fitting opponent for Virginia than Navy as led by Niumatalolo.
Mendenhall’s knowledge of Niumatalolo and his staff goes beyond the watching the Army-Navy game every year and the couple hours of preparation he had in between the bowl announcement and when he spoke to media on Sunday evening. Mendenhall says he’s tried to hire one of his former BYU players, Shaun Nua, who is in his sixth year as the defensive line coach at Navy, albeit unsuccessfully.
Speaking of former players, Coach Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a Niumatalolo, is a senior at BYU and played under Mendenhall for two seasons, from 2014-2015, before Mendenhall came to Virginia.
“I was very grateful for the years of [Bronco Mendenhall] coaching my son,” Niumatalolo said, and I knew what Bronco stood for. I know my son learned a lot from him and his staff. As a dad, I was very appreciative and grateful that my son got to play for someone like Bronco. So that’s exciting; he’s excited.
“Hopefully he’s pulling for his dad though.”
“[Va’a] is the ideal, in terms of behavior, work ethic, discipline, kindness, unselfishness,” Mendenhall said. “And if you know his parents, they’re amazing people. We share the same faith, we share the same values, and when Va’a came to BYU, it was evident not only who he was, but why he was that way, and that’s because of his parents. He was an absolute joy to coach.”
That notwithstanding, when asked who he thought Va’a would be rooting for, Mendenhall laughed. “He’d better be rooting for his dad. It’s family first. I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t.”